Peters’ power slips out of hands
Until recently, Winston Peters seemed the likely king-maker at this year’s election. Yet National is so far out in front that it can probably govern alone without needing to do electorate deals with the Act Party, the Conservatives or United Future.
Such deals now seem merely the icing on the cake. Nor is National under any pressing need to court New Zealand First.
Clearly, it would be foolish to count Peters out just yet. New Zealand First may get enough extra lift from its annual conference last weekend that we may soon be praising Peters for how well he’s timed his late run for this election. Yet National’s current lead is unlikely to collapse in the home stretch, at least not enough to give hope to its rivals.
Labour in particular, now seems less focused on winning the election than on limiting the carnage. Currently, it is polling in the mid 20s and heading south towards the levels plumbed by National’s 20.93 per cent result in 2002.
Labour’s poll numbers virtually ensure that Peters will not be lining up with the centre-left bloc, post- election. That prospect always did seem like wishful thinking, yet Labour’s tactics all year – from floating a compulsory Kiwisaver scheme to shunning a Labour/ Greens alliance – have been a series of love letters sent to Peters, all in vain.
As things stand, any voters who truly want to put New Zealand first are likely to see New Zealand First (a) occupying an irrelevant position on the cross benches or (b) joining the rabble of small parties around National’s throne.
This year, New Zealand First celebrated its 21st year of existence. Its prime appeal has always been to older voters, yet Peters’ party has shown an ability to attract new recruits, even as time has thinned the ranks of those who came aboard when Peters was in his prime.
Early this year, the Maori blogger Morgan Godfery provided a brilliant description of Peters’ enduring appeal: ‘‘Winston speaks to a New Zealand that feels under ideological and demographic siege . . . to people who yearn for a New Zealand that never existed. Winston speaks to their imaginary past.’’
The party’s pitch is to those New Zealanders who feel adrift, Godfery argues, now that market forces have dissolved both the egalitarianism of the Norman Kirk era and the strong state capitalism championed by Rob Muldoon. ‘‘ Winston’s people are worried about economics and leadership. That’s the source of their angst, but race is its expression. Why? Because race represents their ideological losses today and their demographic irrelevance tomorrow. Immigration – and Maori bashing, of course – is the lightning rod of their unease . . .’’
For now, the main threat to New Zealand First is coming from the Conservatives, the shiny new vehicle for those voters who resent the modern triumphs of social and economic liberalism.
Nationwide, Colin Craig is presenting himself as a younger, more dynamic version of the old trouper. Peters’ potential threat to stand in East Coast Bays, if that seat is gifted to Craig by National, is one way of tackling that problem, head-on.
A cage fight between Craig and Peters in East Coast Bays could well provide New Zealand First with publicity, and help it across the 5 per cent threshold. Anything else for Peters, post- election, would be gravy.